On July 4 we celebrate the 237th birthday of the United States. And celebrate it we do—as, indeed, we should—with parties, parades, concerts, fireworks, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and flags everywhere.
But we might also remember how close we came to losing it all when the Union nearly tore itself apart in the greatest war this country ever fought, a war with itself.
This week, besides marking the nation’s birthday, also marks the 150th anniversary of the days in early July, 1863, when two great victories for Union forces proved to be the hinge of fate in that war. Before that week, many thought the South was winning. After all, General Robert E. Lee had enjoyed his greatest military triumph at the Battle of Chancellorsville as recently as the first week in May. Abraham Lincoln, upon hearing the news of the Union Army’s rout by a Southern army half its size, said, “My God, my God, what will the country say?” Meanwhile General Ulysses S. Grant had spent months trying to take Vicksburg, Mississippi, a city that sat high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, its guns commanding that stretch of the river and preventing the passage of Union forces on the river that was otherwise in Union hands.
Lee decided to strike north, into Pennsylvania, hoping both to find food, shoes, and arms for his troops and forage for his horses, and to score a huge propaganda victory by showing that the North could not stop a general many had come to think of as invincible. For three days, July 1, 2, and 3, the two armies slugged it out in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere, at Gettysburg, in the blazing heat of a Pennsylvania summer. After the slaughter of Pickett’s charge on July 3—as ill-conceived a tactical maneuver as any great general has ever ordered—Lee was forced to retreat back across the Potomac River. He would never again be on the offensive.
On July 4, Grant, having invested Vicksburg from the rear, a dangerous and risky maneuver, accepted the surrender of the city. In Lincoln’s words, “The Father of Waters flows once more unvexed to the sea.” It was a huge victory for the North because it cut Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana off from the rest of the Confederacy, which was thereby denied the resources of those states, a third of the Confederacy.
The war would last almost another two years, but the tide had now turned decisively. Lee suffered as many as 28,000 casualties at Gettysburg, a third of his army. Union losses were only slightly smaller. At Vicksburg, casualties were less, about 10,000 for the Union, 9,000 for the Confederacy. (Although Grant took an entire Confederate army, about 30,000 men, prisoner, he paroled most of them, and they were able to soon rejoin the Confederate forces).
So this week, as you down your third hot dog and look forward to the strawberry shortcake and fireworks, pause for a moment to remember those who made this 237th birthday possible: those who gave their lives at Gettysburg and Vicksburg 150 years ago so that this nation might live.